By Al Raychard
Bear Hunting Magazine
Jan/Feb 2012 Issue
I suppose what intrigues me and so many others about color phase bears, other than the fact I have never killed one and they are supposed to be black and aren’t, is not much is known about why they are colored and why for the most part, they are a western phenomenon. To my knowledge, no study has ever been conducted to find the answers, which has only elevated the interest in hunting color phased bears and the mystery and uniqueness surrounding them for most hunters.
The best evidence, and most accepted explanations suggests color variations are the result of climate variations and helps camouflage bears in certain habitats. In the moist, densely forested east where better than 98% of the bear population is black, the dark coat does indeed help bears blend into the shadows. In the generally drier west, where vegetation is sparse and there is more open ground, brown, cinnamon or blonde offer better camouflage. In some parts of the west, some localized bear populations can be up to 90% color phase.
Research has also shown a bear’s black fur can heat up to 180 degrees in the summer sun, so lighter colored bears in the more open west are less susceptible to heat stress. There is also evidence that melanin, the pigment responsible for the black color is more resistant to abrasion, making it a better protective cover for bears living in heavily forested areas. Some speculate that color phased bears may possess a genetic disorder, a recessive gene if you will, that influences coloration that has been passed down from one generation to the next.
Whatever the reason, whether due to climate, environment or genetics, or perhaps a combination of all three, the fact remains that some parts of North America have high numbers of color phase bears; which brings us to the ultimate question: Where is the best chance of finding one and filling a tag with one?
Based on what we have learned, the following states and provinces offer the best chances. It should be noted, however, while some states and provinces offer estimates of color phase bears within their borders and have been quoted here, no federal, state or provincial agency we are aware of has conducted a comprehensive study on the percentage of color phased bears on a national, state or provincial level.
The accompanying table of color phase bear percentages and following information is primarily based on input from those states and provinces that provided estimates, but also on information from several outfitters and guides contacted in each jurisdiction mentioned. While we originally thought some percentages were high, interestingly, estimates and percentages were consistent across the board.
Color phase bears are common place in some states. But for the majority of bear hunters they are a rare sight and a true trophy.
With an estimated bear population of more than 31,000 within its open hunt zones, the Centennial State is home to one of the largest bear populations in the United States. By all estimates, bears are also expanding their range and increasing in number and the actual number is without a doubt substantially higher. As a consequence, hunting seasons for both gun and bow hunters have increased in recent years.
The state is also home to perhaps the highest color phased bear population in the country, with some guides and outfitters mentioning “black” phased bears are not common in their hunting area. While the hunting is excellent throughout California where bears can be hunted, the central Sierra’s counties of Tulare, Tuolumne, Fresno and Mariposa, along with Shasta, Siskiyou, Trinity and Humboldt in the north are good bets. It should also be mentioned, more than 50% of all suitable bear habitat in California is publicly owned in the form of national forests and various state properties, so there is plenty of room to hunt and find bears.
For more information on hunting licenses, bear hunting regulations, season dates and areas open to bear hunting visit www.dfg.ca.gov.
Although the Grand Canyon State does not have a large bear population, it does produce some of the largest bears in the country and produces its share of trophy heads according to B&C and other record keeping clubs. It also has a high percentage of color phase bears according to guides and outfitters offering bear hunts. Some are reporting color phase bears make up 75% of their annual take.
The best bear habitat is in the timbered mountains regions. The national forest lands of Gila and Greenlee, northeast Graham, western Maricopa and Coconino counties south of the Colorado River are good locations to hunt bears. Look for them at higher elevations early but at lower elevation where prickly pear, acorns, juniper and Manzanita berries are found later on. In a nutshell, where there’s food is where to hunt Arizona bears!
For more information on bear hunting, license information, other bear hunting details or a list of hunting guides visit www.azgfd.gov.
Hunters take some nice bear in the Land of Enchantment and the percentage take of color phased bear compares with neighboring Arizona. Unlike neighboring Arizona, general hunting licenses are available over the counter from venders statewide.
Good places to hunt bears include any of the mountainous national forests stretching generally from the Colorado border to Apache and Gila National Forests, which border Arizona in the southwest. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Costilla region in the north can be especially good as are the mountains between Santa Fe and Taos, the San Juan and Jamez Mountains west of Los Alamos and the Sacramento Mountains in the south-central region.
For more information visit www.wildlife.state.nm.us.
For a list of New Mexico hunting outfitters and guides visit www.nmoutfitters.com.
The Constitution State has a large bear population and prime hunting opportunities will be found over the entire western two-thirds of the state. Several outfitters and guides report upwards of 80% of their seasonal bear take were color phase during their fall only archery, muzzleloading, limited rifle and regular rifle seasons, with brown specimens dominating, although the actual percentage is mostly like less than that. All licenses are issued over the counter, although there is a cap in place, meaning anyone can purchase a license until they are sold out.
Considering Colorado’s healthy bear population and extensive bear range it is difficult to recommend one region over the other but any of the public lands in Delta, Mesa, Larimer, Archuleta, Gunnison, Jackson, Montrose, Routt, Grand, Garfield, Moffat, Huerfano, La Plata and Las Animas counties are good bets.
For more information on hunting seasons, licenses and other bear hunting particulars visit www.wildlife.state.co.us.
For a list of outfitters and guides visit www.coloradooutfitters.org or www.colorado-outfitters.com.
The Gem State offers some of the best bear hunting in the west with color phased bears making up an average better than 30% of the annual harvest at most camps. Hunters can choose between a spring or fall season, licenses are affordable, available over the counter, two bears may be taken in some units and hunting over bait and with hounds are legal in most areas. Tag fees for the second bear are offered at a reduced rate.
For the most part, bears are found throughout Idaho’s coniferous forested regions, basically the northern two-thirds of the state. Fewer numbers are found south of the Snake River, with the exception of the southeast region along the Montana and Wyoming borders. Excellent hunting, as well as a host of outfitters will be found on the national forests in these areas, especially the Clearwater, St. Joe, Nez Perce, Coeur d’ Alene and Challis in the central region and the Targhee/Caribou in the southeast. There is also some excellent bear hunting on the national forest lands in the northern panhandle.
For more information visit www.fishandgame.idaho.gov.
For list of Idaho outfitters and guides visit www.ioga.org.
The Evergreen State is home to an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 black bears, and many outfitters and guides report their take of color phased specimens is better than 40%. Baiting and the use of hounds have been prohibited since 1996, yet about 1,200 black bears are harvested annually, primarily by spot and stalk method. Hunting licenses for the fall hunting season are easily obtainable over the counter and, except in the eastern regions where the limit is one, bear hunters are allowed two bears per license year. Spring hunting is allowed in some areas, with permits issued by draw.
Black bears are found throughout Washington but for color phased specimens the best hunting is in the national forests along the eastern front of the Cascade Range and in especially the northeast and southeast regions. This would include Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forests in the north-central region, Colville and Kanisku in the northeast and the Blue Mountains and Umatilla in the southeast.
For more information on license requirements, bear seasons and other particulars visit www.wdfw.wa.gov.
For a list of outfitters and guides visit www.woga.org.
With one of the largest bear populations on the continent, a two bear limit in most areas, high success rates and a long list or world class outfitters, Alberta is a top bear hunting destination. Add in a respectable percentage of blonde, brown and cinnamon color phased bears, a lengthy spring season and fall season that can be combined with other big-game species, it is easy to see why Alberta draws hunters from around the world.
Generally, the remote lands west, northwest and northeast of Edmonton are prime bear territory. Best bets for color phase bears would have to include along the Peace River, the Slave River south of Fort Smith, the Athabasca River and the territory east and west of Fort McMurray.
For more specific information on season dates, licenses and a list of outfitters visit www.apos.ab.ca.
In recent years Manitoba has become a top bear hunting destination, largely because the province produces its share of big bears and color phase specimens are common just about everywhere in the prime hunting regions. Spring season dates vary depending upon the zone but extend to the end of June over much of the northern half of the province north and east of Lake Winnipeg. The season ends earlier west and south of the big lake so hunters should check with an outfitter for dates.
Excellent hunting opportunities will be found just about everywhere north of Winnipeg, but year after year the territory around Thompson in the north, The Pas, the Porcupine Hills, Swan River, Duck Mountain and Riding Mountains all west of Lake Winnipeg are top producers. In general, there are more color phased bears in the western part of the province than the eastern.
For more information on hunting opportunities and a list of outfitters visit www.mloa.com.
Bears are found just about every where in Saskatchewan, but the highest densities are in the big woods north of Saskatoon. The percentage of color phase at most camps runs better than 25%, and bears of large size are more than possible. During the spring, most bear hunting is over baited stands, and success rates typically run high.
Some prime hunting areas for color phased specimens would have to include in the vicinity of Prince Albert Provincial Park and to the east along the Saskatchewan River. The Duck Mountain area in the southeast is also a top spot.
For more information on season dates, licenses and a list of
outfitters visit www.soa.ca.
So, now you know the answer on where the best spots are to find a color phase bear. I have hunted many of these locations and the color phase bruins keep eluding me, maybe this year will be different.